More On White: Milkweed

Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_on_Milkweed_Hybrid_2800pxThis photograph from Wikipedia speaks volumes to the importance of the milkweed.  Asclepias tuberosa is a favored nesting site for the Monarch butterfly.  At summers end, the wild plants we have growing at the shop will be covered with their larvae. The Monarch larvae feed on these leaves. The butterfly weed is a favored host in my area.  They will spin cocoons; the mature butterflies will emerge some four weeks, give or take.  Only once have I witnessed a mature butterfly emerging from its chrysalis-it happens that fast.

milkweeed-pods.jpgAsclepias has much to recommend.  The plants are long lived, utterly drought resistant, and carefree.  The flower heads of asclepias tuberosa are orange and gorgeous.  Asclepias incarnata has flower heads that are a quiet shade of dusky rose.  But my main interest in them is the seed pods.  The pods are large, ovate, and a compelling shade of bluish green.  In late summer, this green phase dominates the plants.

milkweed-pods.jpgOnce the seeds begin to ripen, the pods will split along their length.

milkweeds.jpgOur local fields and meadows are full of the remains of the milkweed pods come November.  They have an elegantly spare and ruggedly persistent shape.

asclepias-tuberosa.jpgBut the white fluff inside is what interests me the most.  Each butterfly weed seed is firmly affixed to its own white silky and fluffy airplane.  These white silky hairs catch the wind, and aid in the dispersal of the seed.

milkweed-seed-pod.jpgHow plants set seed is an event any gardener would appreciate.  How the milkweeds insure the survival of their seed is nothing short of miraculous.

milkweed-pod.jpgFrom Wikipedia: The milkweed filaments from the follicles are hollow and coated with wax, and have good insulation qualities.  As of 2007, milkweed is grown commercially as a hypoallergenic filling for pillows. This commercial use does not interest me as much as how the butterfly weed seeds itself.  A milkweed seed with its virtually weightless attendant white fluff is a little and subtle miracle I never tire of.  Every year, the marvel of it enchants me.

milkweed-pods ripening.jpgOnce those seeds emerge, that fluff is everywhere.  It will stick to your hands, your clothes, your shoes, your trowel, and your wheelbarrow.  An individual seed is large, and relatively speaking, heavy.  How this plant has evolved to insure that these big seeds get dispersed is but one of countless stories engineered by nature.  I have had occasion to design and install fairly complex landscapes, but this design and execution is beyond compare.

ripe-milkweed-seeds.jpgAny landscape designers best ally is what comes from the natural world.  All it takes is a lot of observation, and then some serious thought.  As my friend and colleague Susan Cohan says, art does not necessarily have to work.  No artwork needs a white silky airplane to be.  A work of art lives independent of time,conditions, and circumstance.  Good landscape design is a craft, in that every moment needs to assess the conditions, fire up,and fly.

milkweeds 004The milkweed seeds about to fly is a day in the gardening season I look forward to.  I would hope these plants would find a foothold in many places.  I like that the Monarch butterfly feeds and reproduces on a plant that has a plan to not only enable these beautiful creatures, but reproduce.

milkweeds 005Much of gardening is about the physical issues.  The dirt, the water, the drainage, the weather, the maintenance, the beginning, and the ending.  But there are those singular moments that float.

setting-free-the-milkweeds.jpgThere is a day every gardening season when I make the effort to launch the asclepias seeds. It feels good to think I am doing my part.

milkweed-seeds-airborne.jpgDo these seeds need me?  No.  Nature saw to this efficient dispersal long before I ever took up a trowel. But I do it anyway.  This white fluff I put in the air makes me feel good.



  1. GORGEOUS………….

  2. Worst monarch season I ever did see, last summer. Sad. Saw two tattered monarchs. Milkweed shortage, habitat lost. Think maybe, Debra Silver, we should put our lawns up in milkweed come spring.
    Come to think about it saw only 2 swallowtails, our bottlebrush usually covered with them when in flower.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Howard, we had a lot of butterflies this year-as the panic grass planting in the front garden has a random butterfly bush here and there. But not so many monarchs. I have fields surrounding the shop on 3 sides with lots of milkweeds. A lack of plants could not have been the problem. Deborah

  3. Barely a monarch around in our current New Zealand summer either. I have tried growing asclepias (our common name for it is Swanplant – don’t know why) many times over the years for the butterflies. It is super easy to grow but from the moment the monarch butterfly eggs hatch the plant is devoured and stripped before the caterpillars are ready to go into their beautiful cocoons.

  4. The milkweeds have been plowed under in fields which are now planted with corn and subsidized by the federal government. Thus fewer monarch butterflies.

  5. A plant showed up about 5 years ago along my garage in semi shade. Now there are at least 4 or 5 plants. I think God planted them?

  6. The problem with the Monarchs is not only less milkweed in the United
    States, but also the areas in South America where the butterflies migrate to in the fall
    have a lot less places for the Monarchs to gather.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Susan, the decline of habitats in South America and Mexico have impacted Monarch populations, no doubt. Deborah

  7. Beautiful photos. Elegant prose.

  8. Hi Deborah,
    I also share an affinity for milkweed. At our farm we harvest some, not all of the pods, seed and all late fall and separate the fluff from the seeds to make seed bombs which we sell at our farm. I will edge the pods judiciously with a bit of glue and glitter and use them in our holiday wreathes. As well as being so important to our monarch population, I think that they are spectacular plants and consider ourselves fortunate that they seem to favour our conditions and readily self seed. I also love their heady scent. This past Boxing Day. I put the relatives to work separating the fluff. My ingenious brother came up with a pretty cool method. It will be up on YouTube shortly. I can keep you posted if you are interested!
    Stay well and thank you for the great post
    Viki Reynolds

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Viki, Please do keep me posted. I collect the pods every fall. I am a fan of milkweed-the plants, the seed pods, the seeds, and the monarchs. Thanks for writing, Deborah

  9. Conny Shapiro says

    My friend Susan introduced me to your blog and I think of her with thanks every time I read one your wonderful postings. Re Milkweed – I allow ‘weeds’ to grow, until I know what they are. About 5 years ago Milkweed started to show up outside of the kitchen window and I let it be. Monarchs visited at the end of September, but being at the end of Long Island I did not expect them to be able to reproduce so late in the season. I left the plants through the winter, not knowing what might happen in Spring. The surprise was in April when a Baltimore Oriole (now referred to as Northern Oriole) showed up; after eating the apple blooms, she started to peel very carefully and slowly the stem of one milkweed, single strands .. very patiently. She probably came back for more when I was not watching. She uses these fiber strands to build her hanging nest.. I had saved some of the pods with their silk, put them in a suet feeder cage – and she came and pulled out the silk! One of my most wonderful experiences.
    I have allowed Mild Weed to go rampant – but since Hurricane Sandy, no Monarchs, no Orioles … perhaps this year.


    Hi there Deborah,

    As promised, here is the link for the video on cleaning milkweed seeds. As well as using the seed and the pods, I recently learned that the fluff can be incorporated into felt. I am going to give it a whirl. I was inspired by the beautiful felt tree skirt which I saw in your garden shop before Christmas. I am now taking felting classes!

    Cheers and stay warm!

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